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"Someone to restore my confidence in journalism".

Jose A. Martinez Soler reflects on classmate Kathryn Johnson, NF '77

My dear friend Kathryn Johnson, a pioneering reporter who covered the U.S. civil rights movement for The Associated Press, died in Atlanta on October 23 at the age of 93.

As 1977 Nieman fellows, we spent a lot of time together: classes, gatherings, conferences, seminars, trips, parties. She appeared in my life when I most needed someone to restore my confidence in journalism and explain the contradictions and excellence of the United States, the country of Ana Westley, my wife. I had been anti-Yankee ever since President Eisenhower hugged [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco and sustained his dictatorship. She helped me to know and love the American people.

Talking to her about her professional and personal experiences gave me strength to continue in our profession, so beautiful and so dangerous, a year after I suffered a kidnapping, torture, and a simulated shooting in a mountain range in Madrid.

Kathryn always managed to get the story. In 1963, after Governor George Wallace banned the entry of black students at the University of Alabama, President Kennedy sent his deputy attorney general to the school. Kathryn and other reporters were locked In a room, away from the confrontation. She told the police that she had to use the bathroom. She escaped and hid under a table, From there she heard the angry exchanges between the racist governor and Kennedy's envoy. She could tell the story like nobody else.

She also covered the lives of Vietnam veterans and theirfamilies and did two interviews with Lieutenant William Calley Jr., accused of killing 22 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai. My conversations with her and my father-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Westley, about the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy remain indelible.

In 1979, Kathryn left AP for US News & World Report and, in 1988, she joined CNN at its headquarters in Atlanta, retiring 11 years later.

In 1988, when I covered the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, Kathryn was my guide in the Deep South. She took me to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave. Her friendship with him and his family went way back, long before he was famous. The day he was murdered, Kathryn was the only journalist invited into his home by his widow, Coretta. I will never forget Kathryn's teachings and her kindness.

Caption: Kathryn Johnson, NF '77, in 1964

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Author:Soler, Jose A. Martinez
Publication:Nieman Reports
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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